It’s been about eight months since the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire, tore through Butte County, claiming 85 lives and burning 240 square miles. The wildfire destroyed almost the entire town of Paradise, including 90% of all of the houses and 60% of the commercial district.
Nearly a year later, Paradise is still an active disaster zone with a water supply that remains completely compromised. But amidst the stories of destruction and devastation there are also those of perseverance and reconstruction. And one of those inspiring stories belongs to fellow members Vince and Kristina Clarkson, owners of Hudson’s Appliance Center.
About five years ago, the Clarksons, then in their mid-20s, took over the family business for Vince’s father, Jim, as he battled cancer. It was neither an easy, nor expected, choice for the Clarksons. They were high-school sweethearts turned husband-and-wife, and most recently had become mom-and-dad. At the time, Vince had his whole career planned out in the Marine Corps. He was a Staff Sergeant — a helicopter door gunner — who had spent time in combat in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Kristina had a burgeoning career in the fitness industry as an owner-operator of a fitness franchise. But the idea of a stable family life and the opportunity to work together called them back home to take the helm of Hudson’s.
A New Vision for the Future
Hudson’s Appliance Center has been in the Paradise community for 56 years, with ownership passing through three families over the years. So the Clarksons weren’t just taking over ownership of an established local business; they instantly became stewards of a local legacy.
When Vince and Kristina arrived back in Paradise, they hit the ground running, learning everything they could about the appliance business. At the time, the business was a fairly small operation that was struggling with profitability and attracting new customers. But the Clarksons knew they wanted to increase business and expand, so they started pushing hard.
And the numbers speak for themselves. Since taking over ownership, the Clarksons have consistently grown the business an average of 30% year over year. While they don’t point to one single attribute for their success, taking pride in what they do has been integral. It’s a lesson Vince’s father taught him by example.
Jim Clarkson started working at Hudson’s as an installer in 1985 but knew he wanted to move into service and repair. It was more profitable, and he knew he’d have a job for life. So he offered to work for free in the service department in exchange for training. A few weeks later, his eagerness, hard work and passion had landed him a spot on the service department’s payroll. And his responsibilities and career only grew from there. In fact, Jim was so highly regarded that the second owners of Hudson’s Appliance, the Baumans, recruited him to purchase the store when they wanted to retire in 2007.
Learning the Retail Ropes
Once Vince and Kristina decided to take over the store, Jim sent Vince to Fred’s Appliance Repair Academy in Ohio to learn the ins and outs of appliance service. Vince then applied those lessons by working service calls for six months. Anything he could do to build his appliance knowledge, he was in.
“I didn’t want to set expectations for our employees that I couldn’t do myself,” Vince says. And he adds that he regularly pulls from his military background to guide him as business owner. “In the military, you learn how to guide and lead. I knew if I could successfully guide a Marine, then I could take the same approach with employees. So I try to mentor them, help them improve their skills, give them props for a job well done and hold them accountable when they miss the mark.”
While leading employees seems to come naturally for Vince, the couple says that customer service is certainly Kristina’s gift. Similar to Vince, she’s able to pull from her background as a franchise owner to handle even the most difficult or disgruntled customers.
While some warn against working with family, Vince and Kristina say they truly enjoy it and find their individual strengths and weaknesses make them a stronger team. And thank goodness for that. Because the duo would need to lean on one another’s strengths in epic proportions when disaster struck their town only a few years into their run as business owners.
The Camp Fire Tragedy
In November 2018, Hudson’s Appliance Center had a staff of 16 including Vince, Kristina and Vince’s father. After the wildfire hit the town that month, only three employees still had their homes standing. Kristina remembers going to bed the night the wildfires spread feeling certain that their store had burned to the ground. Scenes of their shopping center in flames were on the news. “One of our contractor friends texted us saying, ‘Sorry for your loss.’ He knew how much hard work we put into it the store,” she recalls.
But when they arrived at the shopping center later to access damage, they were shocked to see that, while everything around it was gone, their store and warehouse were still standing. Damaged of course, but their inventory had survived. But then two weeks later, they were hit with monsoon rains that flooded their damaged showroom, adding injury to insult.
The devastation was so widespread throughout their town that many residents have permanently left, dramatically cutting the population. Paradise’s water system remains compromised. And the Clarksons have been given an expectation of years to rebuild the town’s infrastructure. Yet they remain hopeful. While not blind to the obstacles, they still see opportunity. Rebuilding requires appliances, and they’re prepared to be the go-to retailer.
Meanwhile, all of their operations have been shifted to their much smaller showroom in Chico. Vince says with a laugh, “It’s only 1,100 square feet, and there are 17 of us working there with only one bathroom and two desks. We’ve definitely grown closer over the past eight months.”
But they make it work. Because their employees need them to make it work. Some were living in cars following the wildfire. Others were indefinitely with friends and family. And one of their lead installers actually took up residence at the Chico showroom during the night when he and his kids, dogs and extended family had no place to go.
“To keep our employees, we did what we had to do,” Vince says.
Triumphing over Adversity
Fast forward to today, and the Clarksons are projecting six more months until renovations are completed on their Paradise store. But instead of worrying about the what-ifs, they are instead choosing to focus on the opportunity. Indeed, they’re planning to return better than ever with the area’s largest showroom space, best displays and best service, a true destination retailer for all of Butte County.
The Clarksons have also found recent success by diversifying into outdoor grills and kitchens, which they plan to add to their Paradise store. They’ve also found tremendous support through fellow members with whom they exchange advice regularly, as well as their Whirlpool reps as an exclusive Whirlpool dealer.
While they never imagined a future in the appliance industry for themselves, the Clarksons have certainly proven that opportunity is always around the corner when you’re driven, dedicated and willing to take those unexpected risks.
“I think we learn something new every day, still,” Kristina says. “And that’s our goal — to keep growing and expanding and learning. There’s no place else we’d rather be.”
Amy Croom is the director of public relations and communications for Nationwide Marketing Group.